A Personal Devilby Roberta Gellis
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Master Mainard makes the blind Sabina his mistress, expecting that his wife Bertrild will be glad to be rid of him, since his face is horridly disfigured. Then Bertrild is murdered and Mainard is suspected. Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress of the Old Priory Guesthouse, works with Sir Bellamy of Itchen to untangle the hatred and blackmail that resulted in Bertrild’s death. [2nd of the Magdalene la Bâtarde mysteries] Historical Mystery by Roberta Gellis; originally published by Forge
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A Personal DevilA Magdalene la Batarde Mystery
By Gellis, Roberta
Forge BooksCopyright © 2002 Gellis, Roberta
All right reserved.
12 MAY 1139
OLD PRIORY GUESTHOUSE
Whore!" Sir Bellamy of Itchen bellowed, his fair skin crimson with rage.
Magdalene la Bâtarde, whoremistress of the Old Priory Guesthouse looked up at him, completely unmoved, then uttered a small exasperated sigh.
"Yes," she agreed. "I am a whore. I have been telling you so since the day we met."
"You swore to me you had retired from that work."
Magdalene sighed again. "I did not swear. I said I took no pleasure in making the beast with two backs, and that is true, but I was and am a whore. You know quite well my reasons for taking the man's five pence. We are a woman short since Sabina took Master Mainard's offer and became his leman. I cannot turn away the men accustomed to her service. I run a business and I must pay an exhorbitant rent. I need the money."
For a moment Bell could not speak. He stared down into her exquisitely beautiful face. He could not ever remember seeing a woman so beautiful. The skin was flawless, a translucent, creamy white; the large almond-shaped eyes, framed in golden-brown lashes long enough to touch the fine brown brows above them, were the faintly grayed blue of a misty morning. The nose was straight and fine, the lips full, perfectly shaped, a dark rose. He ground his teeth. Every word she said was true. Andhe could not bear it.
"Why did you let Sabina go, you fool," Bell snarled.
Magdalene's lips thinned. "First, because Sabina was not a slave. She had long since repaid what I gave her previous whoremistress to let her come to me. Second, and far more important, an unhappy and unwilling whore does not provide the kind of attention to the pleasure of a client for which the Old Priory Guesthouse charges the highest fees in Southwark--"
"So you are not an unhappy and unwilling whore," Bell snapped.
The small sign of temper that Magdalene had displayed a few moments earlier disappeared. She shook her head and laughed. "No, indeed I am not. I feel a sense of virtue and righteousness over the two clients I entertained last week. The one--who really only likes strong and brutal men--can boast in public that the whoremistress herself satisfied him; and the other, who not long ago lost a well-beloved wife and has no chick at home, talked himself out of his loneliness and sorrow and perhaps, at last, is considering taking an indigent sister into his household. These men need my 'services,' such as they are, and I need their five pennies. That is the end of it. The matter is no longer open for discussion. Now, if you wish to dine with us, you will be welcome, but if you only wish to quarrel with me, I have better things to do."
"So you intend to receive clients again?" Bell's voice had dropped to normal, but it was flat and expressionless.
"Until I can find a replacement for Sabina, yes, I do."
Magdalene's voice was equally flat; it was also hard. Bell turned on his heel and went out, slamming the front door behind him. Magdalene sighed. She was very fond of Bell. She would have liked to invite him into her bed for far more active entertainment than she had provided for either the young man who desired men or the old widower who needed company, but she did not dare. Bell, she feared, actually cared for her, and in her past experience that bred disaster.
Her husband had been so jealous that he threatened to mutilate her. Her first lover had been slain by the man who wished to keep her in his stead. Her second...Magdalene shivered and pushed the memories away. An opening door drew her attention, and she smiled at the adorable face peering timidly around the edge.
"You can come out now, Ella. Bell's gone and he did no harm. There was no need for you to hide, love. Bell would not be angry at you, and you know his shouting mostly means nothing."
Truly golden curls framed Ella's face and hung below her narrow waist, shining against her dark bedrobe. She emerged cautiously into the corridor that ran from the large front room of the house to the back door. On either side of the corridor three doors broke the wall. Ella looked both ways; her eyes were blue as a clear sky--and just as empty; her nose was short and slightly tip-tilted, her full lips truly the red of ripe wild strawberries. She was still uneasy because things that did not worry Magdalene at all frightened her, and she peered for reassurance at a slightly older woman standing in the doorway across from hers.
Letice, as dark as Ella was fair, with hair hanging to her knees, black and straight as a sheet of silk, nodded at her sister whore and showed her two empty hands. Ella smiled and accepted that as assurance that there was nothing to fear, since Letice, being mute, could not speak any comfort. However, Ella knew that if Letice felt the shouting man to be a threat, she would have been holding a long, wickedly sharp, curved knife concealed along the side of her bedrobe.
Relieved of fear, Ella came into the common room with small bouncing steps. Her perfect lips pouted. There was a tiny frown between her fair brows. "But he might blame me," she said to Magdalene. "In a way, it is my fault. I could take more clients, I am sure I could...."
"Not and give them all the time they want, love."
"Well, I would not tell anyone to go. You are always scolding me for urging my friends to stay longer than they wish. This way, I would not do so."
Magdalene restrained a sigh. Ella was sweet, good, and insatiable for coupling, but she had the mind of a five-year-old. She was not offering to take more clients, as another whore might, because she was greedy for more money. She was paid the same, no matter who or how many slept with her. She was offering out of her excessive eagerness to please everyone and her equally excessive urge for sex.
"Well, that is true, but what if one of your 'friends,' did not wish to leave you and another was already waiting and growing more and more impatient. You would not want to wound the one by thrusting him out, nor to wound the other by seeming indifferent to his desire. No, loveling, it is better that each man knows his proper time and that there is as much time as he desires. Besides--" Magdalene grinned broadly "--you would not want Sir Bellamy to believe I was all his and demand that I leave the Old Priory Guesthouse."
"Oh, you would not, would you?" Tears suddenly stood in Ella's eyes, which were now round with fright, and the color faded from her cheeks.
"No, love, I would not," Magdalene assured her, rising to her feet and hugging her. "I like my freedom and having my own money to spend far too well to yield it to any man ever again, even if I must take clients."
At that point, Letice, who had followed Ella into the common room, touched Magdalene's arm and pointed to the door beyond her own, which had been Sabina's chamber. It was still closed. Letice sighed, shook her head, gestured at Ella, Magdalene, and herself, showed a closed fist, and then made a sharp slicing motion.
"We are tight together, and Hagar is not one of us?" Magdalene said, interpreting what Letice wished to say.
The dark beauty nodded, then shrugged and sighed again.
"Well, I agree with you, although I am grateful to you for finding her for us. Without her we would have had to turn many away, and some, like William's men, were delighted to have a less gentle playfellow than Sabina. Still--"
She stopped as Letice began to gesture again, then stamped her foot and ran quickly back to her room. When she came out with a piece of slate and a stick of chalk, Magdalene nodded approval vigorously.
Several weeks before, a papal messenger had been murdered in the church of St. Mary Overy, just the other side of the wall behind the Old Priory Guesthouse. Magdalene and her women had been accused simply because they were whores and close by. To save them all, Magdalene had become involved in solving the crime, and Letice had had information they had almost failed to obtain because she could not speak. Both the agony of frustration Letice suffered and the danger of her being unable to tell a crucial fact decided Magdalene that Letice must learn to read and write. Magdalene herself had these skills, most uncommon for any woman and unheard of for a whore, because of a parsimonious archdeacon, who had taught her in lieu of payment for her services. Letice was a quick learner because of her desperate need to communicate and fingers nimble enough to move fragile wax seals from one document to another. In a few weeks' time she had at least absorbed the rudiments.
On the slate was "no sta tu culd."
Magdalene stared at Letice's production, wondering for a moment whether interpreting what she wrote would be any easier than trying to make out her gestures, and then light dawned. "Hagar does not wish to stay because it is too cold."
Letice beamed with joy, her huge dark eyes bright with satisfaction, with relief at having an outlet for the ideas locked within her. She embraced Magdalene with abandon. Magdalene returned the embrace heartily, but her throat was tight with sadness. Writing might help Letice, but reading the few words slowly inscribed on a slate could not really take the place of talking out a problem as she had done with Sabina. Sabina had been blind, but her ears and ability to feel emotion had been keen, and she was calm and sensible. Magdalene missed her more and more. And now she had probably driven Bell away, too. She bent her head to hide the misting of tears in her eyes and kissed Letice's forehead.
Watching them, Ella smiled, pleased by the satisfaction Magdalene and Letice seemed to feel, even though she did not understand it. Then the little frown returned to mar the perfect smoothness of her brow. Slowly she walked to one of the stools grouped near the hearth, sat down, and reached into the basket beside it for a piece of embroidery.
"Hagar annoyed the man," she said suddenly, then looked anxiously from Letice to Magdalene. "Is that telling tales?"
"Not about anything that annoys our clients," Magdalene said firmly. "You know I do not want to hear about what you think Letice or Hagar do wrong about their dress or cleaning their chambers or that they handle knives or eat what you do not like, but anything that troubles a man she has lain with, you must tell me at once."
"I do not mean to speak ill of Hagar, nor did she steal or be rude or unwelcoming," Ella said, naming the greatest sins she knew. "It was only that he wanted her to do something I would gladly have done, and she did not."
Since Hagar was accustomed to satisfying tastes far more exotic than any Magdalene permitted her clients, she doubted the refusal had been deliberate. She sighed. "Probably she did not understand him. She speaks barely ten words in French and no English at all and has not the smallest desire to learn." She sighed again. "I will have to go out to comb the stews again and see if I can discover a girl who is pretty and not too hardened."
* * *
Magdalene was not the only person who had come to the conclusion that a new whore must be found for the Old Priory Guesthouse. Sir Bellamy had been in too much of a fury when he left to think of anything, but by the time he had made his way across the bridge to London, weaving around tradesmen's stalls, dodging chapmen selling wares from packs on their backs, and avoiding customers, who kept stopping suddenly right in front of him to examine some item that attracted them, Bell's first fine rage had worn off.
The press of merchants, the nearly desperate enthusiasm with which all cried their wares, the devices they used to attract customers' attention, all reminded Bell of Magdalene's statement of need. He knew, in fact, how much rent she paid on the large stone house that had once been the guesthouse for a very strict order of nuns, so strict that they would not permit any man except the priest into their priory. The order had withered away, and the priory of St. Mary Overy with its church had been taken over by monks who were far less rigid. They had built a fine new guesthouse within the grounds and allowed the old guesthouse to fall back into the bishop of Winchester's hands.
The house was not suitable for many purposes, divided into many small cells except for the large front room, but it was too good to pull down or use for cheap storage. So when an offer was made to rent it for use as a bathhouse (which it was understood would be a whorehouse also) for which it was admirably arranged, that offer was accepted. It was, after all, only one of many such places the Church owned.
Having got that far in his thoughts, Bell recalled that many, many whores worked out of houses paying rent to his master, the bishop of Winchester. Since it was his business to deal with secular problems for the bishop, and most stews had or caused problems, he was well known to all the whoremasters and whoremistresses. Surely among all the women who plied their trade in those houses, he could find one who had not sunk to the very bottom, who was still young and attractive and able to be weaned from the worst ways.
Bell stopped abruptly, causing a man behind him to curse him as roundly as he had previously cursed the erratic progress of people in front of him. If he could bring Magdalene a new recruit and she would return to her practice of never taking a client herself, then he would know she was sincere about not wanting to be a whore.
He suddenly felt much lighter, smiled at the colorful chaos on the bridge, and started to turn around to go back to Southwark and start looking for an appropriate girl only to bump into an oncoming stranger. The check removed the smile from his face, but it was neither the physical contact nor the delay that made his well-shaped lips thin to grimness. He was appalled that he had been ready to put aside--no, worse, had forgotten--his duty because of a...whore. Yes, she was! She called herself a whore, and who should know better.
He stood rigid, causing several more people to shout curses at him, then started on his way again, his jaw set. Maybe he would look for a new woman for her, maybe he would not, but he had first to deal with a tradesman who had taken the bishop's money and not delivered the goods.
In a hurry now, he pushed past a man hawking candles, another thrusting a tray of hot pies at him, and almost banged into a plank set on two barrels and draped with strips of embroidered cloth. A single glance told him these were nothing compared with Magdalene's fine work, and he muttered several obscenities under his breath as he passed the obstacle and started down the slope that led off the bridge because it seemed he could not shut her out of his thoughts for two moments together.
He turned right at the bottom into Thames Street. That might have been a dangerous route for a man as well dressed as Bell, because all kinds of ill-doers bred among the docks and cheap drinking houses that catered to the sailors. However, the long sword and long knife with their well-worn hilts that hung at his broad leather belt gave warning that he would not be easy prey, and he passed without even a catcall flung after him.
Bell was not unaware of the danger but preferred it to making his way up Fish Street where he was too likely to be splashed with filthy water from the gutter or spattered with offal flung from stalls by busy fishmongers. A short walk past a narrow, nameless alley brought him to a wider street with a fresher smell. Lime Street did not, of course, provide shops only for dealers in limes but for many grocers with diverse but better-smelling stock than fish. Turning left into Lime, Bell passed another nameless alley, which separated the yards of the dwellings and warehouses on Thames Street from those attached to the grander houses of the merchants who had businesses in the East Chepe.
A right turn took him past a pepperer's shop and a large, double counter displaying staples. Before the open door to the next shop was a long trestle, invitingly heaped with bolts of cloth and hanks of yarn, a mercer. Beyond that was a closed door and a narrow, heavily barred goldsmith's window. Bell stopped by the mercer's counter.
"William Dockett?" he asked the man at the counter.
To his surprise, the young man's eyes widened and then filled with tears. "He is dead, sir, this six months." Then he swallowed and added, "Can I help you?"
"My business would be with your new master, then," Bell said, relaxing the severity of his tone. "Would you tell him that the bishop of Winchester's man has come to talk about an order that was paid for but never delivered."
He kept all threat from voice and manner. It seemed there was adequate excuse for the delayed delivery. If Docket had died after the order was made and paid for, there might well have been confusion. He was thus surprised again when the journeyman looked rather frightened and, instead of calling into the shop for his master, began a rambling defense of being sure all goods had been shipped as ordered.
"Then you had better carefully examine your deliverymen because the goods did not arrive, either at the bishop of Winchester's London residence or at Winchester. Now, why do you not call your new master? I have with me the original order and the tally stick showing payment. We can examine these and your master's records together and see when this order was made up, by whom, who carried it..."
"I cannot leave the stall now, good sir," the journeyman said, his voice quavering a little. "And I am not sure that my master is within. Perhaps you could come back at some later time--"
"I will come back with the sheriff in a quarter of a candlemark," Bell said, his voice rising. "I have more important things to do than to return over and over to suit the convenience of a merchant who is months late in fulfilling--"
"Now just a moment!"
The voice was loud and angry. Bell's hand dropped to his sword hilt, but he did not begin to draw. The new arrival was unarmed and dressed in a long gown that was not meant for action. In addition, he had seen that the man's glance flicked to the threat and dismissed it, instead fixing on his clothes. As the merchant took in Bell's short, emerald green overtunic, lavishly embroidered around the neck and hem with Magdalene's most fanciful work, the rich brown chausses with cross-garters to match the tunic, and elegant knee-high leather boots, his expression grew more and more bland.
When he spoke again, having also absorbed the excellent quality not only of Bell's outer garments but even of his lemon-yellow under-tunic and fine white linen shirt, his voice and words were far more civil. And, when he heard Bell's complaint, he invited him in at once and waved him ahead toward the left side of the shop where a steep flight of stairs went up to a second story. Two doors opened at right angles to each other on the small landing. He opened the door facing the stairs to show an office full of boxes of parchments and tally sticks. Toward the back, where a window gave good light, was a table with a stool behind it and two in front.
As he selected one box from a neat pile to the left of the table, he introduced himself as Lintun Mercer, who had taken over William Dockett's business when he had died, very suddenly, the previous November. He quickly found the order, of which Bell had a copy, and then the other half of the tally stick Bell also carried, which proved payment had been made. He frowned then and bit his lip, but then shrugged and drew a deep breath.
Bell was agreeably surprised when, instead of beginning an argument about the difference in price at the time of the order and now or trying to shift the blame, Master Mercer acknowledged that the order had been made, paid for, and not delivered. He apologized profusely, excusing himself by mentioning the grief and confusion caused by William Dockett's sudden and unexpected death. Then he offered to deliver the bolts of cloth to the Southwark house within the week or to Winchester within a month.
Without the smallest hesitation, Bell accepted the apology and settled for delivery to the Southwark house. Carts constantly travelled between Winchester and Southwark on the bishop's business, and he felt the merchant should be rewarded by saving the cost of cartage for his quick offer of restitution. Bell had expected an extended argument about whose fault the loss of the cloth had been and had expected to be occupied at least until dinnertime before he obtained an admission of culpability from the merchant. He was delighted at the quick solution that allowed him almost a whole free day.
He wondered briefly whether he should mention the obvious unease of the young journeyman over the undelivered order. Could it have been diverted from its rightful goal rather than never leaving Dockett's shop? But there could be other causes than theft for the journeyman's behavior, and Bell was reluctant to get him into trouble.
Later, as he walked quickly toward the bridge and the stews of Southwark, Bell asked himself whether he had wished to save the journeyman or to avoid spending the time talking about the subject. A twinge of guilt assailed him, but he told himself that if the young man had taken advantage of the chaos following William Dockett's sudden death, it was not the kind of situation that was likely to be repeated. Likely, too, he had been so frightened by the discovery that the cloth had gone astray that any temptation to help himself again would be cured. And, finally, Bell thought, his duty was to protect the bishop, not to worry about merchants who were too trusting. The ten bolts of fustian would be delivered. He had fulfilled his duty.
Unfortunately, finding a new woman for Magdalene was not so easily accomplished. He managed to visit four stews before hunger drove him to a cookshop, where he sat scowling at the food and thinking how much better he would have enjoyed dining at the Old Priory Guesthouse. He was still not willing to yield to the necessity that Magdalene should take men to her bed, but he had to admit that not one of the raddled, broken, filthy, foul-mouthed creatures he had seen could possibly be presented to the clients of the Old Priory Guesthouse.
Nonetheless, he continued his search through the afternoon, telling himself that there must be one, at least one, who was new enough to the trade to be salvaged. He had repeated that to himself for perhaps the tenth time when he opened the door to a place he knew too well. At least five times in the past half year he had been sent to wrench from the whoremaster rent he had not paid, to seek for stolen items, to investigate complaints about women beaten or not paid, and once to question the whores and the whoremaster about a body pulled from the river (just across the road) who someone swore had been seen entering that place.
Taking a deep breath, Bell stepped into what he always thought must look like the entrance to hell. It was dark and the air was hot and moist from the constant splashing out and refilling of the two huge tubs, the token baths. Someone was always screaming, sometimes with laughter and sometimes with pain, and the sound echoed off the water and the slimy ceiling, while along the walls and in the corners, dark figures humped and squirmed, moaning with lust (or, for the whores, groaning with boredom).
The whoremaster was not at his usual place, half athwart the door where he could trip or seize any customer who had not paid. Bell had just opened his mouth to shout for him when a door to one of the back rooms slammed open and a woman's voice, rich and musical despite the fact that it was loud enough to override all other sounds, began to revile some spluttering male in language that opened Bell's eyes but in an accent that was purer than that of his own mother or sisters.
There was the sound of a slap followed by a male howl of pain, and a woman darted between the two tubs and then turned to stand at bay, having picked up a heavy, long-handled metal ladle, which she gripped with grim determination to defend herself. The man who followed her, gasping and limping, was the whoremaster himself. Bell grinned, guessing he had tried to sample the merchandise without offering to pay.
The whore backed away toward Bell; the whoremaster followed, waving his fists and angling around to drive the woman into a space where she could be trapped. The movement brought her hair and then her face into the light of a dirt-smeared window, and Bell drew a deep breath.
"That's enough!" Bell roared as the whoremaster gestured to two men emerging from the shadows and the whore raised the ladle, but with a sob of terror.
"Who the hell--" the whoremaster began, turning his head just enough to see Bell, whereupon he uttered an obscenity and waved off his bully boys. He had tried once to have Bell overpowered and gained nothing but two crippled servants, a visit from the sheriff, and a huge fine. "I paid my rent," he snarled. "You got no right to interfere--"
"The bishop has a right to do anything he wants," Bell snapped, "including to put you out of this place, so do not tell me what I have and have not a right to do. Who is this woman? I have not seen her before."
"They come and go. Who? She says her name's Diot."
"Come here, Diot," Bell said, gesturing her toward a place where the light would fall more fully on her.
She hesitated a moment, then lowered the ladle and came. Bell drew another deep breath. She was not as beautiful as Magdalene; her mouth was wider and its shape not so perfect, her nose broader, not so fine and delicate, but her eyes were a clear green, large and well lashed, and her hair, even though now it was dirty and stringy, when clean would be the rich color of oak leaves in the autumn. She was wearing little more than filthy rags and sported a number of dark bruises that showed through rents in the fabric, but the skin would be very white, Bell thought, once the grime was gone. He took a farthing from his purse and put it in her hand. Without a word, she turned and led him back into the room from which she had erupted.
There was a torch burning to the right of the door, and the resinous, smoky smell battled with the miasma of stale sweat, stale sex, old vomit, and overused bodies. Worse, the torch cast enough light to expose the thin, filthy pallet near the back wall. A crumpled blanket lay in a heap on it; what color either had been was impossible to guess--both were dark gray and shiny with filth now--but Bell could see a darting movement here and there on pallet and blanket that showed how many six-legged pests inhabited the bed.
Although he closed the door, Bell did not move farther into the room. "Well, Diot," he said, "what was the cause of that altercation?"
"He'll say I stole from him. It isn't true. He wanted to use me without payment. I had given him his tithe when I came. If he wants more, he must pay just like any other."
Bell let his breath out, only realizing then that he had been holding it. The voice was lovely and the speech as good clear French as was spoken in the household of any nobleman of England.
"Perhaps you should not have been quite so forceful," he remarked, smiling. "Men do not readily forgive having their nuts cracked. I do not think this stew will be a safe place for you to work." He saw her nostrils flare, her lips tighten; the sheen of tears that dimmed her green eyes.
"Then I will go elsewhere. There are stews enough in Southwark."
The words were bold, but there was the faintest unsteadiness in the voice. Bell smiled more broadly when he took in her increased anxiety. Likely she had stood up for her "rights" in other places and been cast out; this was not one of the more desirable houses. He shook his head.
"I do not think so. I think you have already made yourself unwelcome in too many places. I think you had better come away with me. I know of a very special house where you might do well and be happy."
"Oh, no!" she exclaimed. "I will take my chances in the ditches and alleys before I go to such a place. At least I will die quick and clean in the streets."
Bell laughed aloud. "Not that kind of special. This is a place that serves only the rich, and the woman who keeps the place does not allow her whores to be mistreated. She might be willing to accept you as a replacement for one of her women who has gone to live with a client. You are very beautiful, and you speak a fine French. Do you speak English too?"
"You want me to speak English while we couple?" she asked in that language. "Good enough. I will not even charge you extra for it."
Bell shuddered visibly. "Couple in this place? It is worse than a sty. I would sooner be celibate forever. Well, Diot, will you come with me? I swear you will be safe and free to leave if Magdalene will not accept you."
When she did not answer, he opened the door and went out, loosening his knife from its scabbard as he came into the main room. Leaning on each of the baths, watching the door, the whoremaster's brutes were waiting. Diot must have peered out of the door behind him and seen them too.
"Wait," she called. "I am coming."
Copyright 2001 by Roberta Gellis
Excerpted from A Personal Devil by Gellis, Roberta Copyright © 2002 by Gellis, Roberta. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Roberta Gellis has a master's degree in medieval literature and another in bio-chemistry. She is the recipient of many awards, including the Romantic Times' Lifetime Achievement Award for Historical Fantasy and the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
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